CIEE Week 6: Shanghai

As much fun as it was exploring a new region of China last week, it feels good to be back in Shanghai. Getting out of the cab outside the school gates and hearing the familiar jingle of the on-campus grocery store as we walked by, I felt a sense of home coming, like I do every time I get back to Georgetown after a break.

 

Unfortunately, getting back from a break also means returning to the reality of school. This week, we had class on Friday to make up for what we missed on Tomb-Sweeping day. What with all the traveling and the full five day week, not to mention the start of midterms, I was feeling pretty tired by the time Friday rolled around. But, after Chinese class, I rallied to do some sightseeing and explore some of the areas of Shanghai I had yet to see, starting with the Propaganda Poster Art museum.

Located in the basement of an apartment complex, this tiny private museum houses several Chinese propaganda posters from different pivotal moments in the country’s history. Unlike the propaganda I’ve seen in train stations and on billboards since I’ve gotten here, these posters are less about touting Chinese values or encouraging certain types of behavior but more political and reflective of the tense relations China has had during periods of conflict with other nations, especially the U.S. Several of the posters depicted the U.S. as barbaric, old, greedy men; it was fascinating to see America and certain key moments in history from a Chinese perspective.
After the propaganda museum, I had wanted to check out one of the modern art museums but a spontaneous downpour had other plans. Caught umbrella-less downtown, my friends and I headed to an underground area called Found 158 near the expat neighborhood, which was full of multicultural restaurants, including the best pizza I’ve had in China so far.
One of the interesting aspects of being in China is how my craving for certain foods has changed. On Thursday, the weather got cold and gray out of the blue, and all I wanted to eat was hot pot, which I had only had maybe once before in my life prior to coming here. I’ve now made it my mission to identify good hot pot places in D.C./Georgetown, so if anyone has any suggestions, let me know! Additionally, earlier this week, I took my roommate to an Indian restaurant because she had never had Indian food and because I wanted a change of pace from my steady diet of dumplings and noodles. I never thought I’d reach a point in my life where I wasn’t in the mood for noodles but somehow, there we were.
My feelings about food aside, this was a fairly normal week. As is often the case, I feel like I’ve settled into a comfortable routine just in time for the full brunt of midterms to shake everything up starting this Monday.
In honor of all the plans I had this week that didn’t pan out and the great time I had regardless, the song of the week is You Can’t Always Get What You Want, as a personal reminder that sometimes, the best days and the best moments are unplanned, like stumbling upon an I <3️ Shanghai sign after walking for an hour to find a specific restaurant.
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While photographically it’s hard to be sure, even when it rains or I have midterms, I really do love Shanghai! 
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CIEE Week 5: Tomb Sweeping Extravaganza

Ni howdy,
I am fresh off of an extra long weekend, courtesy of Tomb-Sweeping day, a national holiday during which Chinese families go home to visit and clean the tombs of their ancestors. Seeing as I have no ancestors in China to pay respects to, I decided to use the five day weekend as a chance to do a little exploring around China.
Despite a solid two hours of sleep on Thursday morning, my friends and I somehow managed to make our 7 A.M. train to Qingdao for the start of our adventure in Shandong province. Fun fact: Shandong is often considered the birthplace of dumplings (饺子 or 水饺 for those in the know), which totally definitely didn’t factor into our decision making when selecting our trip destinations.
Upon arrival in Qingdao, we trekked across the city for a few hours, ending up at the large pink balls which house the observatory tower with a rotating view of the whole city. From above, Qingdao looks almost more European than Chinese,  with the red tile roofs that remain a subtle reminder of the city’s former German occupants.
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A view of Qingdao from above

 
 Walking around Qingdao worked up quite an appetite so we ducked into the first restaurant we saw with a sign proclaiming they sold dumplings. While at first we thought it was actually someone’s house it turned out to be a delicious restaurant that served classic homemade steamed dumplings and a variety of fresh seafood (a plus for the rest of my non-vegetarian traveling companions). The next morning, we toured the Tsingtao museum/brewery to learn about one of the most popular beers in China and spent the rest of the day wandering downtown and eating as many dumplings as we possibly could before heading to our next destination.
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The city of Tai’an in the distance as seen from the climb up

We arrived in Tai’an around 10 pm at night, only to find out that the hostel we booked online had apparently been closed for two years. After a slight moment of a panic in which our cab driver circled aimlessly, probably vowing to never pick up Americans ever again, we hit up the closest hotels in the area. The first one we visited was already full but the second had space, so we booked one room

for all six of us. Six college students in one hotel room is not the easiest fit but we managed, going to sleep almost immediately after checking in. Originally, our plan had been to climb the nearby mountain, Mount Tai or Tai Shān, at night to see the sunrise from the summit, but following our chaotic arrival to the city, we pushed back our start time in favor of some sleep. In hindsight, best decision we could have made.
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One of the temples along the mountain

Even during the day, the climb was fairly strenuous, taking us about five hours to surmount the several flights of near-vertical stairs and reach the summit. However, after the amount of food I consumed in Qingdao, it felt great to get some exercise. Luckily, the weather was beautiful, and the view from the top was definitely worth it; I can totally see why it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.
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Small Tara, Big Mountain

By the time we reached the end of the hike, my friends and I were blasting pump-up music and singing, much to the shock of the locals climbing alongside us, who were primarily surprised to see foreigners had made it so far up the mountain. Because our feet were slightly sore/jelly-adjacent after the ascent, we took the overpriced cable car down and grabbed a quick bite to eat before jumping on a train to our next destination — Qufu.
Qufu is known for being the home town of Confucius, so tourism oriented around him seems to be the main focus of what is otherwise a  sleepy, fairly small town. For example, my travel buddies and I think our hostel, located a mere five minutes from the city’s main tourist attraction, was no more than an addition to a family’s house; the bedroom for the son of the owners was across the hall from my friend’s room and the whole place was locked when the family went to sleep until 6 A.M.  My friends and I were definitely a rare sight for most of the locals; the owner of the noodle place we hit for lunch even filmed us exclaiming positively about his food so keep your eyes peeled for my breakout acting role, coming soon to a WeChat near you. Additionally, I am pretty sure I was the first person of color most of the city’s residents had ever seen, as evidenced by another restaurant owner who told me I didn’t look like I was from America as well as the middle-aged woman who reached out and wiped at my skin in shock as we passed each other entering the temple.
The Confucius temple in Qufu is known as one of three great ancient building complexes, and while most of it has been restored, some of the original temple structure remains.  In addition to the temple, we saw Confucius’s former residence and his tomb. The park surrounding the tomb was lush, with small purple flowers in full bloom. It was nice to have a moment to just meander and enjoy the beautiful warm weather after the other jam packed days. Once we were done, we called the tour bus to take us to the train station; for just a few extra kuai, we ended up with the entire bus to ourselves, which was pretty neat.
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The whole travel crew at the Tomb of Confucius)

While we saved money on transportation in some cities, like Qufu, young dumb and broke is probably one of the best ways to sum up this trip. Despite the low prices for food and drinks in China, the relative lack of ATMs compatible with my American bank, combined with the oftentimes ridiculous prices of visiting these tourist sites and spotting my friends who don’t have WeChat pay make it such that I have blown through my cash this weekend and will be subsiding off of 4 kuai jian bings (egg pancakes) for the foreseeable future. It’s worth it though because spending a long weekend with some of my closest newfound friends has led to some ridiculous shenanigans and dumb inside jokes, most of which I cherish deeply.  And most of all, this weekend has reminded me not only of just how wild and unpredictable it is to travel as a young adult, especially in a country like China, but also of how much I love exploring new cities and wandering beyond the comfort of my designated home base.

CIEE Week 4: Nanjing

Happy Easter, for those of you who celebrate! To the rest of you, happy Sunday! I spent Good Friday like any good Catholic school girl* would, exploring Buddhist temples.

(One of the many buddhas at the Jade Buddha temple, however, not one of the jade buddhas, which I was not allowed to photograph)

Some of my more religious friends actually tried to attend mass on Friday, so I tagged along, curious to experience church in China because, why not? Unfortunately, English services here are hard to come by, improperly publicized and in niche locations so our plan quickly fizzled out. Instead, we ambled between neighborhoods, eventually settling upon a small restaurant named Abbey Road, where we indulged in some fondue for dinner. I can’t tell you how excited I was to taste real cheese, but if you’ve met me, you can probably guess.

I blinked and somehow I’ve been in Shanghai for a month. To cap off these jam-packed, culturally immersive past four weeks, CIEE (the organization running my study abroad program) took my classmates and I on weekend trips to big cities within our province. I ended up in Nanjing, a city just two hours west of Shanghai. Nanjing was previously the capital of China, on several occasions; in English, the city’s name literally translates to South capital.

Throughout China’s history, Nanjing has borne witness to several key events, from the beginnings of Dr. Sun Yatsen’s revolution to the infamous Nanjing Massare. We managed to pack a lot into two days, starting with Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum, followed by a monument honoring the Ming emperor who first set up Nanjing as the country’s capital.

(ABOVE: Cheesing at Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum; BELOW: Iconic stone camels at the Ming mausoleum)

At night, we took a brief boat tour to admire the light installations up for the lantern festival. After a full day of walking, we treated ourselves to some local street food, culminating in this towering mango milkshake masterpiece with a layer of cream on top of fresh mango juice, topped with mango slices and one scoop each of mango and vanilla ice cream. If none of my post-grad plans pan out, catch me bringing these bad boys to the U.S.

(ABOVE: My friends Julia, Suzy and I with our cherished mango creation; BELOW: Some of the lights along the river. Not pictured, the several Chinese ladies who crashed our boat, kicking our several students along with our tour guide in the process, and kept telling us to quiet down)

Sunday morning, we soaked up the sun and heavy 污染 at Xuan Wu lake, just across from our hotel, before hopping on our trusty tour bus over to the Nanjing Massacre memorial. In remembrance of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who were raped and murdered at the hands of the Japanese in 1937, this museum was a profound and emotional experience. I’m constantly struck by the deeply personal and different ways that people decide to honor and remember tragedy. The memorial reminded me of the Holocaust museum in D.C.; in my opinion, both institutions effectively blend personal narrative, external media and historical context to convey the depth of the tragedy. Prior to coming to Shanghai, I knew very little about the massacre, so it was powerful to learn more about such a pivotal time in China’s history.

(Outside the memorial)

In addition to expanding my cultural and historical awareness of the country I’m calling home for the next few months, the weekend trip was a nice opportunity to continue my ongoing tradition of weekend exploration. Additionally, since we signed up for these trips before reaching Shanghai, the mix of participants in each city kindly forced us to branch out beyond the initially-formed friend groups and get to know people not in any of our classes. If there’s one thing studying abroad in high school taught me, it’s that there’s nothing like several hours together in a bus to forge friendships.

With this latest trip, I have now knocked off all three cities on my initial China bucket list that I cobbled together before arrival— Suzhou, Hangzhou and Nanjing. I’m excited to add more train tickets to my growing collection next week as my friends and I head North to the Shandong province for the upcoming Tomb Sweeping holiday. Until then, I plan to recharge and catch up on my sleep as much as possible.

 

* NB: To clarify, going to Georgetown, a Jesuit university, makes me a Catholic school girl. Also, after 13 years of non-denominational Christian education, including several years of Bible class, I’m feeling qualified enough to claim this title. #SorryNotSorry

 

CIEE Week 3: Shanghai + Hangzhou

Happy first week of Spring (technically)!
No one warned me that Shanghai would get cold. Granted, we aren’t at nor’easter snow day levels but the start of this week felt much closer to D.C weather than the Asian winters I’ve experienced in India.

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Traditional tea cups from tea city filled with a peach tea on the left and green tea on the right

This week, my Chinese class took a field trip to TianShan, also known as the tea city, which was exactly what I needed on a rainy Monday morning. Located just two bus stops from campus, “tea city” is actually a maze of shops dedicated to Chinese tea culture, with store fronts selling hundreds of different kinds of tea harvested from all across China as well as artisanal handcrafted tea pots and cups. While I’m definitely a big tea drinker, I usually stick to black and herbal teas. But in China, green tea is the thing, and to my surprise, the LongJing Lu Cha we tasted was my favorite, followed by a Ginseng Oolong that the tea vendor introduced to us as a favorite of most foreigners. The tea not only woke me up but also helped soothe my throat which had started feeling the side effects of Chinese air pollution.

 
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West Lake

Luckily, as the week went on, the weather improved enough for us to venture outdoors, just in time for this week’s Friday adventure: Hangzhou. From Shanghai, Hangzhou is a little further than Suzhou (where I went last week), but it’s still only a 1 hour train ride. In a shocking twist of events, this time around we didn’t miss any of our trains, making it to Shanghai around noon. After grabbing some fried rice from one of the many restaurants located surprisingly in the bowels of the train station, we set off for Hangzhou’s main attraction, West Lake. Rumored to have been one of Mao’s favorite spots, the enormous West Lake is a natural breath of fresh air in a country that often feels stiflingly industrial. Despite the ever present 污染, we still enjoyed a leisurely boat ride on the lake to reach the lush island at its center. On the island, we saw the “Three Gourds” which are known for their presence on China’s 1 kuai bill (a rare relic these days, in the era of WeChat and AliPay). From there, we hopped on another boat to the LeiFeng pagoda.

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The Three Gourds with some Mao peeking through

 The pagoda towers impressively above the lake and provided a neat view of its expanse. Having walked over 8 miles, we were ready to sit down and eat, but the universe had other plans. Unable to snag a cab despite hailing aggressively and trying to call a DiDi (the Chinese version of Uber), we ended up walking and biking, past the PLA headquarters and huge propaganda posters, to reach Lu Cha, a restaurant my Chinese tutor had recommended we try while in Hangzhou. Energy levels running low, we welcomed the air conditioning and opportunity to sit down while tasting the restaurant’s special green tea flavored tofu. Overall, while Suzhou had more sights, I quite enjoyed the more leisurely picturesque vibes of Hangzhou. The sun peeking through definitely helped!
On Saturday, the school organized a field trip to the local marriage market. In People’s Square Park, hundreds of umbrellas lined the walkways, each representing an eligible Chinese boy or girl. On the umbrellas were sheets of paper outlining the individual’s birth year and month, profession, educational background and occasionally height + weight as well. Some umbrellas were unmanned, others watched carefully by mother’s and a few fathers. We were asked not to take pictures for the privacy of the individuals whose information was on display. It was an interesting experience, one that felt both serious and alive, as parents circled in search of the perfect match for their 30 year-old children.  After the market, a few my friends and I swung by the Jing’an Sculpture Garden to soak in the sun and admire the flowers in full bloom.
 
Sunday was a bit more relaxed, as I firmly believe all Sundays should be. My roommate QianWen and I visited an ancient art exhibit at the Shanghai Museum, the biggest in the city. While waiting in line (China is all about the 排队文化), we talked about the differences in dating culture between the U.S. and China. She said that the marriage market I visited was a tool many families still used today and that parent-led set ups were common because the phenomenon of young adults not finding anyone organically was increasingly prevalent. We also talked about dating apps, and I think it’s interesting that the modern evolution of the age-old quest for love is one thing that transcends cultural differences.
After almost a month, life in Shanghai has settled into a comfortable routine so much so that sometimes I forget I’m abroad in a foreign country. Of course, in reality that’s not something China ever let’s you forget. I will never not stand out here but it’s comforting to know I can navigate daily life in a city that operates almost exclusively in a language that is not my first or even second. They don’t call it cultural immersion for nothing, I guess.
That’s all the self-indulgent reflection for this week. See you all in April!

CIEE Week 2: Shanghai + Suzhou

Hello from the flip-side of my first week of classes in Shanghai!

I find it somewhat amusing that I started my classes for this semester the week that all my friends back home returned from spring break, a time that usually marks around the halfway point of spring semester. However, for me and my fellow CIEE students at East China Normal University, the academic year is just beginning. As part of the program, we have two hours of Chinese language classes each day, followed by a three-hour long elective. While the afternoon block is pretty punishing, each elective only meets once a week so I have my afternoons free on Tuesdays and Thursdays until my 4 pm Business Chinese class, which is quickly becoming my favorite class. I’m one of three students discussing topics such as KFC’s Sinofication and shocking our professor with our stereotypically counter-intuitive lack of fast-food consumption.

During orientation last week, one of the Chinese professors mocked American students who complained about the amount of homework and said that once classes started it was time for us to switch into “hard mode.” But to be honest, without the extra curricular commitments I’m used to at Georgetown, I’m finding myself with a surprising amount of free time. This week I took advantage of the down time to open a Chinese bank account, which is a blessing because now I can use WeChat pay and don’t need to carry any cash. Once I set up my Bank of China account, I could also use local apps like Trip.com which one of my classmates recommended as an easy way to buy train tickets. While I will not be buying tickets via that app again because picking them up at the station was a hassle, planning for our first day-trip really made me feel like I was finally settled in to the city and slowly but surely acclimatizing to the culture.
On Fridays, we don’t have class, so a couple of my friends and I took a 20 minute train to Suzhou for the day.Suzhou is known for its traditional Chinese gardens, and it certainly did not disappoint. Getting to Suzhou was quite an adventure in and of itself— we had to pick up our tickets at the Shanghai railway station and the crazy line caused us to miss our first train by a minute. While waiting for the next train, we immersed ourselves in the traditional Chinese experience with a bite at KFC (hopefully my Business Chinese professor will be proud).

In Suzhou, we wandered empty alleyways to visit the Lion Grove Garden and the Humble Administrators garden, climbing in and out of porous rock formations and contemplating the views.

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Some of the intense rockery at the Lions Grove

On the way back, we encountered some more transportation snafus when the man at the ticket desk refused to give one of my classmates his ticket without a physical copy of their passport, even after another one of our classmates had just received his ticket from a different clerk using a picture his passport on his phone and although the office in Shanghai had said it was no problem earlier that day (eliciting the iconic line from the station manager “This is not Shanghai, this is Suzhou”). After getting back to Shanghai, we tried to head back to campus but were unable to hail a cab. We literally had several swerve away from us on the street. Why they don’t want our money I will never understand. We ended up taking the last metro on our line, with hopes of swinging by McDonald’s for a late night snack to round out our very 地道day. Alas, the restaurant was closed, so we biked back to the dorms (shout out to OFO for eliminating any need to join a gym and also saving me from walking across this huge campus).
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My travel buddies aka the Georgetown guys + our friend Cat

Not only did I explore a new city this week, but I also ventured into new food territory. Because of the limited time in between classes, for lunch this week we got acquainted with the cafeteria across from our dorm. For starters, the caf has two levels, with a bubble tea stand, fresh juice stall and a gourmet section that makes fried noodles to order. By far my favorite stand so far though has to be the one where they make jian bing, a Chinese crispy egg-crepe style dish that is often eaten for breakfast or lunch. Back when I studied in Beijing this was one of my go-to’s so I’m thrilled to have a stand so close to my room. While the caf is convenient, my roommate QianWen has been helping me try some classic Shanghai dishes. This week, she took me to HaiDiLao, a well-known hot pot restaurant, where I met one of her friends and fellow students, a 30 year-old man who designs jewelry inspired by Shanghai and ECNU. The hot pot was amazing — I tried dragon fruit, a fried bread dish and even threw in some noodles that were stretched in front of me. Apparently, the waiters who serve these noodles are known for their noodle-stretching performances, taking playing with your food to the next level.

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My dragon fruit acai bowl from brunch

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Brunch Squad

While I’m still elated that $2 dumplings are less than five minutes from my dorm at any given time, I’m starting to crave food from home occasionally. A couple of girls from my program and I hit up Sunday brunch, putting us in an instant food coma, but a solid end to a great week.

In order to avoid the cab hailing issues I encountered on the way back from Suzhou, one of my friend’s Chinese roommate helped us call a Didi, which is the Chinese version of Uber in that you can call a car to your location except you pay at the end just like a cab. On the way, we serenaded our driver with several rounds of the chorus from what may become the anthem of the year and is definitely my song of the week, bringing with it some always welcome levity.

Can’t believe it’s already been two weeks. Time always seems to move at a different pace when I’m abroad!

CIEE Week 1: Shanghai — the magic city

Study abroad so far has felt like a giant throwback to freshman year, from the dorm and communal bathroom to “anyone want to get food” texts in the 80 person WeChat group. I forgot how much I missed exploring a new city and meeting new people.
In Shanghai, I’m staying on the East China Normal University campus in one of the international student dorms with other students in the CIEE program. My roommate is a local Chinese masters student who is from a few hours outside of Shanghai and studying ancient Chinese art at ECNU. Even though we are in a dorm, in terms of size my room reminds me more of a hotel than my freshman dorm. There’s so much storage space that I’m starting to think I should have brought more clothes.
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My dorm room! Guess which bed is mine…


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Cafeteria breakfast featuring my roommate QianWen

After landing in Shanghai on the first night, my roommate took a few of us to a local hot pot style restaurant since we were starving after all that ~filling~ airplane food. It was surprisingly cold so the hot broth really hit the spot. We got soaked on our way back which was a good way to diffuse some of the awkwardness. Nothing like getting stuck in a storm to bring people together!

During orientation, as we were exploring the sprawling campus, one of the Chinese roommates remarked that Shanghai is known as the magic city because of how it magically switches between seasons from day to day, something we definitely experienced this week as the temperature swung from 30s to low 60s. Somehow, we were lucky enough to get two blue sky days within the week — a rarity for China.
Taking advantage of the good weather, I’ve already begun to check sites off my Shanghai bucket list. We’ve hit The Bund a couple of times, been treated to an impromptu traditional Chinese music concert in Fuxing park, said hey to the site of the communist party’s founding and got asked to be in several photos with locals.
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My scavenger hunt team

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Me and Lois, a Chinese lady who came up to us and asked to take a picture with me and then subsequently sent it to me on WeChat lol

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Quick photoshoot on the Bund

On Saturday, I also explored the old town, contemplating the rockery at Yu Yuan gardens (which is the Chinese naming equivalent of saying chai tea) and people watched at Jing’an temple. The temple was gorgeous and its golden splendor created an interesting contrast with the glitzy mall next door and the office buildings towering nearby. A street musician was jamming out to some Adele on an electric violin as we watched 外国人 and locals alike attempt to toss coins into the lantern structure at the center of the temple’s courtyard. Supposedly, the higher your coin lands, more generations of your family will be blessed.

Even having been to China before, there are still moments where the differences between home and here hit me, in the best way possible. For example, the three other Georgetown students and I have begun frequenting a small hole in the wall restaurant just outside campus where you can get 50 freshly steamed dumplings for what amounts to around 6 USD. They even have a lit egg and spinach vegetarian option! As someone who regularly hits up the dumplings stand at the Georgetown Farmers Market every week, this is a game changer.

With all the noodles and dumplings I’ve been inhaling, it’s a good thing we’ve been walking like six or seven miles a day. After so much walking, you’d think my exhausted body would have adjusted to the new rhythm but I’m still doing calculations every day when I wake up to see if it’s morning in America yet. Maybe the 12 hours of Chinese classes will do the trick once we start school on Monday!

Study Abroad Week 0: Tokyo

Greetings from jet lag city: population of one!

After several months recovering from a whirlwind fall semester, I am finally in Shanghai for my semester abroad. Although when I applied for the program, three months felt like a long time to get ready, it truly flew by; a series of unexpected events coupled with a farewell-for-now visit to DC meant I was frantically packing the night before my flight. If you know me, you’ll know that is is relatively unusual, and if you’ve met my mom, you’d understand that this was relatively unacceptable. I maintain she was just upset that she couldn’t come with me to Tokyo, where I spent a few days before the start of my program.

Since I was in elementary school, I’ve dreamed of visiting Japan. While I don’t speak a word of Japanese, my parents lived there for three years right before I was born so Japanese culture and food have been part of my life practically forever, from the restaurant we go to for every birthday to furniture and the Japanese maple tree on our front lawn. I remember one year, my favorite Atlanta restaurant had a rewards program where the top prize was a trip to Japan and when, albeit a few years later, we finally racked up enough points, I was so devastated to learn they’d cancelled it. I can now confidently tell you that it lives up to the hype I created.

I was lucky that friends of my parents from when they lived in Japan were in town and kind enough to let me stay with them. The Tanakas are in the alcohol export/import business and knowing I had spent time in France, they welcomed me to the city with a 48-year-old bottle of wine and cheese, which of course made me feel right at home. Jokes aside, without them I would have been pretty lost, trying to find shrines based on the few characters I recognized that overlap between Chinese and Japanese.
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Tokyo is unlike any city I’ve been to before. It’s got aspects that remind me of London, Paris, New York and D.C but in my opinion, can’t be easily compared to any one of these big cities. Take, for example, the Tokyo metro: clean and standardized more like WMATA but with occasional art installations that remind me of the Paris metro, above ground stops that feel like the Tube and a seating arrangement within the cars that has a New York feel.
I took the metro on my second day in town from downtown Tokyo to a suburb called Kamakura. Whereas Tokyo seems to be quite the melting pot, Kamakura reminded me of a specific city: in many ways, it felt similar to Rennes. The city center was bustling but just a short metro ride away were silent streets, picturesque hiking trails and rows of small business intermixed among homes. We ended up on one such hiking trail, after the route given by a local passerby dead-ended at the bottom of a trail that lead up into seemingly innocuous mess of trees. 68 meters higher and several miles later, you could hear the nearby ocean which we caught glimpses of through the trees as we hiked towards our destination: a 750-year old giant Buddha statue. Never have I ever been more grateful for an offhand decision to switch my booties with converse for a day; it took a few more seconds to enter and exit the inner sanctum of the first temple we visited but saved me from sliding down the muddy, slowly eroding mountain. Thankfully, the air was fresh and the weather brisk so we arrived in good spirits at Daibutsu (as the Great Buddha is known in Japanese).
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Turns out, the Big Buddha, the highlight of the Kotokuin temple, was only the beginning. By the time I left Japan, I had visited four Buddhist temples and four Shinto shrines, my favorite of which was probably the Hasedura shrine. The shrine showcases traditional Japanese gardens and houses a massive golden Buddha (that I was unfortunately forbidden to photograph).
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A quick walk up and through the shrine, which felt like nothing after the hike to Daibutsu, led us to a spectacular view of the city and ocean below.
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blog8Of course, any recap would be incomplete without a highlight reel of the food. Having grown up with decent exposure to Japanese food, I came to Tokyo expecting more of the same. However, while I did sample some of the staples that have come to exemplify Japanese food in the U.S (ramen, sushi, tempura), I was introduced to a whole new array of flavors and dishes, from the depth of options at a mall food court to a prix-fixe vegetarian menu that was written only in Japanese. I also went to a kushiyaki restaurant, where diners sit along a U-shaped counter and watch the servers cook in front of them, serving skewers of grilled meats and vegetables, paying based on the number of empty sticks piled up at the end. Needless to say, it was awesome and delicious.
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I would definitely say stopping in Tokyo before starting my official study abroad program was a 10/10 decision. Not only did I get to fulfill a lifelong dream and cross another country off my well-worn scratch map, but I have a feeling the the additional four buffer days to adjust to the time difference are going to be clutch. Although after wearing out my shoes with well over the coveted 10,000 steps a day while in Japan, I might just end up with my brain and body too tired to figure out what time it’s supposed to be.
Speaking of the amalgamation of cities and timezones I’m holding in my head at the moment, while I was in Atlanta before I left, I went to a concert for a band I was first introduced to during my previous study abroad experience with SYA France back in high school. As I was attempting to fall asleep on the plane, a line from one of their new songs kept repeating itself in my head and now that I’m somewhat well rested, I think it’s a good mantra for my upcoming semester. No matter what happens or how stressed I get, I’ve just got to remind myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Sadly, I had to say goodbye to the land of automated taxi-cab doors, heated toilet seats and rotating mannequins. See you on the other side of week 1 in Shanghai.
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P.S – In order to keep things interesting, I’m going to try to tie each update to a song that I associate with my experiences. Hopefully by the end I’ll have a solid playlist to listen to and reminisce whenever people back at Georgetown get tired of hearing about “when I was abroad.”